Spectacle and passion prevail at tenth anniversary of RGNS Cirque
“Romeo, Romeo, where for art thou Romeo?” This famous line was never delivered during last weekend’s cirque adaptation of “Romeo & Juliet” put on by students at the Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School. In fact, none of the Bard’s dialogue was included in the performance. But this was no ordinary high school play.
Despite the lack of dialogue, the demonstration of both silent dramatic acting and the physical grace and stamina of circus feats combined to make “Cirque Verona” a truly moving performance, lacking none of the passion or pathos of Shakespeare’s tale of young, starcrossed lovers. Once again, audiences were truly wowed and occasionally moved to tears by another original production from the young Cirque players.
Ten years ago, when a small class of 10 drama students at the school put on a short spring performance inspired by the Toronto-based Cirque du Soleil, they had no idea they were starting a phenomenon. In the years since that first presentation at the small, private college-prep school in Rabun County, Ga., the RGNS Cirque program has grown by leaps and bounds, so that today the annual cirque performance is no longer just a show, but as Dean of Students Dan Holtsclaw says, “It’s an event.”
“Cirque is different,” said Holtsclaw, who last Saturday afternoon was busily taking tickets at the entrance of the RGNS Rearden Theater, which sits atop a hill overlooking the school’s idyllic campus. Holtsclaw noted that the Cirque program is one of only a few similar programs in the entire country, and the annual performance draws enthusiastic crowds from all over the region. Last year, the school was forced to add an encore performance after all three scheduled shows sold out, so this year four performances were scheduled including the Saturday matinee.
“Year by year it’s grown and morphed,” said RGNS drama teacher Bill Patti. Patti, who took over direction of the program in 2008, says his first year involved a steep learning curve. “This was a totally new process for me,” he said.
Obviously, he learned quickly. Patti took over from the program’s founder and previous director, Larry Smith, who Patti calls “a creative genius,” but he credits the other teachers and students of the Cirque program for his ability to change and grow the annual performance. “They’ve taught me way more than I’ve taught them – I’ve hoodwinked everybody,” he joked. “The team has really come together and filled that void [left by Smith’s departure]. We’ve taken what was here, built upon it and really made it our own.”
Last year’s theme was based on “Alice in Wonderland” and for the first time incorporated a well-known storyline as the underlying structure of the performance. Patti says the change was so well-received by audiences that they decided to look at ways to integrate even more realism this year. Adapting Shakespeare’s play, they decided to set the story in a depression era circus, pitting the Capulets as flying “aerialists” against the Montagues, groundling clowns and roustabouts.
The storyline gives the performance an emotional depth and connects everything together, says Patti, but the real core of Cirque remains its circus elements – the trampoline, the flying silks, tumbling, clowning, contortion and many other circus arts that come together to create the fantastic collage of activity that fills the stage.
This is the second year as a Cirque player for Peter Seifarth, who played Romeo. Seifarth, a sophomore from Young Harris, Ga., said that while he has been active in drama since the seventh grade, Cirque has brought a whole new set of challenges, including the “flying silks,” an aerial apparatus that was a central part of this year’s performance. “I’ve learned so much,” he said before Saturday’s matinee. “Last year I was mainly focused on hand balancing and chair balancing, but this year, when I was cast as Romeo, I had to rapidly learn the flying silks.
It is Juliet, played by AnnaMaria Little, a junior from Tiger, Ga., who must teach Romeo the art of the “flying” in “Cirque Verona.” Seifarth and Little's work together through the course of the story shows them growing closer and closer and climaxes in a spectacular scene with the two dancing above the stage together while entangled in the silks.
For Little, this year’s production gave her a chance to spread her wings as an actress. “It’s a really fun part to play,” she said of the role of Juliet. “She’s so virginal and pure and sweet. It’s really cool to see the struggle that she goes through not wanting to hurt people but then getting hurt – the unfairness [of her situation].”
Talking to Seifarth and Little, one can feel how engaged they are, not only in their roles but in the whole idea of cirque. “This is a totally collaborative process,” said Patti about students investment in the production. “It's student driven, and that’s really what makes it so unique.”
Besides Patti, there are four fulltime faculty who work with the students, including Brieanna Bailey, the choreographer, Chris Collins, the technical director, and two cirque specialists, Candice Day and Hannah Grimm. In addition, says Patti, parent volunteers and the many other crew members are essential to putting on a production. Such commitment is evidence of just how special the program is.
“How many people can say that they do this type of thing at their high school?” said a smiling Jessica Bryant, a senior from Cashiers, N.C., who has participated in Cirque for four years. This year, Bryant played the role of Juliet’s nurse and was one of two Cirque Captains responsible for choreographing most of the scenes.
For Bryant, who wants to major in theater after she graduates, Cirque has been an ideal learning experience. “I love that the theatre world is sort of combined with the athletic world,” she explained. “Not only does it require a lot of athleticism, but it requires grace, stage presence. ”
Indeed, the combination in “Cirque Verona” was all but seamless and its result magical. One can only wonder how they will manage to top it next year.